Thursday, October 18, 2012


It was a bad start to the morning. Returning from my dance class, I realized that I did not have the keys to my place. Irritated, I decided to call my husband, mentally cooking up all sorts of arguments to hold him responsible for my forgetfulness. Yes he did remind me to carry my set of keys to the class, but couldn’t he have made sure they were there in my bag? With arguments as incontrovertible as this seething in my bosom, I dialled his number only to be told in Gujarati by a saccharine coated voice that my phone was out of balance. Why did they assume I was Gujarati? Why did they not warn me! This morning, indeed, all the flaws in the world were gaping out like blisters hanging in the air, and I was the sole victim of the grand sloppiness.

A blob of Dalai Lama popped in my head and asked me to cool down and make the best of my situation. My recent reads have that effect on me till, like a carping designer trained to find faults with everything, I find a fault in them. So I decided to go to my workplace (which happens to be a design institute), notwithstanding the bathroom chappals I was wearing and the fried pakoda I was resembling after the dance class. I scurried past all the eyes that I felt upon me, as if tsk-tsking, speaking in hushed tones “there goes an example of bad design” (talk about ego-centricness). I quickly ensconced myself to my little, dark, familiar cabin. A smart woman is not one who smarts in a hostile situation but one who uses smart technology to make smart choices (why should I not join the increasing queue of people abusing the word ‘smart’?) I decided to first recharge my phone using a friendly, neighborhood online mobile phone recharge service.

It just was one of those days. My bank, concerned about my security, decided to send me a one-time password on my mobile phone, which I was supposed to use to transact online this one time. This one time I could really do without their solicitousness. I had changed my mobile number recently and forgotten to update it on my bank account, for which, by the way, you had to physically go to the bank. Or that was the case at least until a few months back. Yet, keeping my faith in modernity and its promise of offering many choices, I tried to find another way to recharge my phone. My friendly, neighborhood online recharge service provider gave me another option of using my debit card details. How thoughtful! I punched in the details, my nerves a little frayed by now, which is perhaps why when it asked me for my ATM pin, at that moment - Plop! It slipped my mind like it was never there! My four digit ATM pin, which I was as sure of never forgetting as I was sure of never landing up in a lunatic asylum, I could not remember it! I typed in some numbers, only to be menacingly warned by my bank that if I did that one more time my account would be blocked.

The Dalai Lama blob was shrinking and militant forces against unknown faces representing all things technological and financial were rising. And the carping designer in me was at her complaining best, or worst if you prefer.

When frustrated, our species runs to the hallowed chai-gate, the St. Peter’s gate’s equivalent of our institute, where the problems of the world are identified, judgements pronounced, the guilty imaginarily hanged and the deserving allowed to participate in the tea-drinking ceremony. Not caring anymore about the disaster I was looking, I parked myself in the thick of the crowd, R.E.M playing “it’s been a bad day, please don’t take our pictures” in my head. It is funny how when you have declared your day to be bad you feel a sense of entitlement to all sensual pleasures - in my case, the gustatory pleasure of chai and a plate of cold idlis. I looked up listlessly at the ancient tree underneath which I now sat and casually wondered how bored it must be witnessing all these years tirades of frustration, malice and ennui. How predictable it all must seem to it. I could imagine it making faces, mimicking and burlesquing all the designerly talk. Certainly I was projecting my sour mood on it, but what the heck! My gloomy thoughts were interrupted by a cup of chai thrusted in my hand, by what in hindsight was nothing less than the invisible hand of God. Just like that famous experiment where the poor dog learns to salivate when the mischievous scientists ring a bell, my nerves have learned to ease out when the tannin hits my tongue. The ginger in the tea rang a bell in my head, and I remembered Vijay Bhai. Vijay Bhai was the smart solution to many everyday hiccups - from recharging phones to finding a place to live in.  Even though I did not have enough cash upon me (since continuing the series of misfortunes today, the ATM machine in the institute was not working), it took him less than half a minute to recharge my phone, and yes, I could pay him later.

Thank God that Mr. Fixit is still a guy of flesh and blood and not just ethereal computerized codes. That he knows me by my face, demeanour and action to be able to make judgments better than any artificial intelligence. In a country which has learnt to find its way around despite systemic malfunctions, there is always an inroad in the offing. It is not to paint a dystopian picture of technology or systems, for indeed facilities like online banking, when go right, make life simpler. Admittedly, in the final analysis it was technology that helped me, as Vijay Bhai used his mobile phone to recharge mine. But what works is the fact that for the various digital interfaces that we encounter, there exists a supporting structure of human interfaces, having the potential of a good partnership of complementary abilities. In other words, I like to carry my smart-phone powered by google maps, but I would like to keep the option of rolling down my car window and asking a perfect stranger where the next petrol pump is.

So much fuss over something as mundane as a phone recharge? On a normal day, the many options and safeguards designed for the purpose would have in all probability worked. But today was different from a probabilistically normal day, when anything that can go wrong did go wrong. It was a day when nearly perfect and well meaning technology met an imperfect user - a user who defers visits to bank to update her mobile number and forgets her ATM pin number just like that, just when she shouldn’t. Not to mention someone who forgets keys despite being reminded. And on a day like this, I am glad that when we borrowed the creme-brule version of technology, we did not rule out a chutnified vechnology version of it as well, for those of us who have a propensity to land up in a soup!

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